An excerpt from the appendix of the acclaimed Scottish novel – The Summer Crew – by John Bennett. In this appendix, join John as he offers background into Scottish salmon fishing in the Highlands – the setting for his book.
THE LIFE CYCLE of the Atlantic Salmon (Salmo salar), Scotland’s only native salmon species, is one of the great natural wonders of the Northern Hemisphere.
The young salmon is born from eggs laid on the gravel bed in the headwaters of a river – usually a small burn high up in the hills. The eggs are laid in the summer and incubate for around 50 days. The small fish that emerges from the egg is called an alevin. At this point it still has a yolk sac attached which is its only source of food. When the alevin has finished with the yolk sac, which usually takes a few weeks, it starts feeding on small invertebrates that live in the burn. The young salmon, having shed its yolk sac, is now called a fry, and is typically about an inch long. The fry will remain in the burn where it was born for anywhere between one to three years until, by a mechanism that is still obscure to science, it decides that it is time for it to leave its home and explore the wider world. To do this it enters a rapid growth spurt which sees it grow to around two or three inches. The parr, as they are now known, then migrate down to the mouth of the river where they start to undergo the huge changes required for them to go to sea, because the Atlantic salmon is one of the very few fish that is anadromous, that is to say it can live in both freshwater and seawater. This is a more significant change than it perhaps seems at first sight, requiring the fish to completely alter its body chemistry to survive the much more saline sea water. This process is known as smoltification, and after it the small salmon, now called smolts, are ready to go to sea.
The salmon smolts congregate at the mouth of their home rivers in large shoals before embarking on their astonishing journey, leaving the estuary of the river and travelling over a thousand miles to the seas off the coast of Greenland where they stay for anywhere up to six years feeding on krill – a small shrimp – and putting on weight.
The Atlantic salmon is the largest of the salmon genus, and can grow very large on the rich diet in the Arctic feeding grounds. The biggest Atlantic salmon ever recorded weighed 109 lbs, and was landed in a net by the commercial salmon fishery on the River Hope on the north coast of Scotland in 1960.
Not all salmon migrate to Greenland; some stop off near Iceland, spending only a year at sea before returning to their natal river. These ‘Iceland’ fish are called grilse, and they mainly return in the middle of the summer – around June, July and August. The grilse ‘run’, as it is called, is the main reason that salmon fisheries employed extra summer crews. The more mature fish return more evenly from early spring all the way through to the autumn.
The Atlantic salmon’s trip of over two thousand miles is an incredible feat of stamina and endurance, however, what makes the trip even more fantastic is that all of the fish return to the river in which they were born. If you catch a wild salmon in the Spey you can be sure it was born there and somehow found its way back from over a thousand miles away: the same applies to the Dee, the Tay, the Tweed, and every other salmon river in the country. Quite how salmon find their way back to their home rivers is another aspect of their lives that is not fully understood, though the fish have an internal ‘compass’ that can detect the magnetic fields of the earth which probably combines with their sophisticated olfactory system to help them ‘smell’ or ‘taste’ the chemistry of their home river.
Once it has found its way back to its home river the returning salmon has to readjust its body chemistry again before it enters freshwater and swims back upstream to the same burn in which it was born, where it will spawn and die. This final stage of the journey can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few months depending on the state of the river and the health of the fish. This part of the journey is particularly arduous as the fish has not only to swim against the stream and navigate a range of obstacles from waterfalls to weirs, but also has to do this without eating. The fact that salmon stop eating when they return to their home river has long perplexed rod fisherman who use flies and lures to simulate food, or even sometimes real food like prawns or worms. Again, scientists aren’t quite sure why salmon take these lures and bait, but one theory has it that the salmon snap at them out of annoyance rather than any desire to eat.
The salmon mate when they make it back to the headwaters of the river. The female, or hen salmon, as they are known, lay their eggs on the gravel bed of the burn. These gravel beds are known as redds, and the male, or cock salmon fertilises the eggs on the redds by spraying them with sperm which is called milt.
For most salmon mating is the final act, with many of them dying in the burns that they were born in. Some, however, survive and head back down the river to the sea. These kelts, as they are now called, have turned from silver to red in colour and are much thinner than when they entered the river, however, as soon as they make it out to sea the kelts start eating and return to the feeding grounds, where they put on weight again. Some fish make this journey from the burns in the hills to the waters of the Arctic circle several times, growing to a great size as they do.
People have been catching Atlantic salmon in Scottish waters ever since both recolonised the country after the last ice age. In fact, it’s been such an important resource for many communities that it features prominently on, amongst other things, the Pictish symbol stones of North- East Scotland, and on the coats of arms of various Scottish clans as well as those of towns and cities including Glasgow and Peebles.
Before medieval times most salmon were mainly caught using traps called yairs or cruives. Salmon netting with a coble – the flat-bottomed rowing boat used by the Summer Crew – appears in histories from around the 12th century onward, with little changing in the technology or approach in the intervening years.
There are currently four legal ways to catch salmon for commercial purposes in Scotland, outlined in a range of legislation, most notably The Salmon and Freshwater Fisheries (Protection) (Scotland) Act 1951 and The Salmon (Definition of Methods of Net Fishing and Construction of Nets) (Scotland) Regulations 1992.
Net and Coble
A seine or dragnet laid by a flat-bottomed boat called a coble at either land or sea.
Static nets which are placed on the coast around estuaries and held in place with wooden stakes and poles driven into the sea bed. Fixed engines are checked at either low tide or hauled in by a boat if they’re placed beyond the tidal zone. There were fixed engine nets round the mouths of many of Scotland’s rivers.
Haaf and poke nets
Large handheld nets, a bit like a massive rectangular versions of a sports fisherman’s keep net, which are carried out by individual fishermen into shallow waters where they stand in the current with the net waiting for the fish to swim into it. These are almost exclusively used in the shallow waters of the Solway Firth and rivers like the Nith and Annan that feed into it.
Fish traps made from wooden stakes and wicker-work sometimes with a stone base. These are now extremely rare and require special permission to operate; grants for new cruives haven’t been issued for over five centuries.
In The Summer Crew the crews fish with a net and coble. Cobles are flat-bottomed, clinker-built boats, ie. the planks or strakes of the boat are overlapped rather than abutted one to the other. This clinker-built style of boat building is common down the east coast of Scotland and the north east coast of England. The coble’s flat bottom was ideal for use on the Spey which often required crews to jump out and haul a boat over the shallow shingle ‘braes’ between pools, this was particularly important in the summer when the water could get very low. Cobles are also very maneuverable, and while this can make them hard to handle for the inexperienced, in the hands of an experienced crew they are extremely versatile craft, capable of fishing both on and offshore.
Each salmon crew was organised into two ‘boats’. Each boat had three men in it; a man laying the net, and two oarsmen. The man laying the net, who would be the skipper in the first boat, and a senior member of the crew in the second, directed the men on the oars and paid out the net that was carefully piled up on the back of the coble. Meanwhile, the three men from the other boat stood on the shore holding the free end of the net. The seventh member of the crew, the stingman, was not assigned to a boat, and was in the coble for every shot as he was responsible for safely grounding and securing the boat when it landed back on the bank.
A ‘shot’, which is what fishermen call the cast of the net, started with the coble at the top of the pool. The aim of a shot was to cast the net around as large a part of the pool as possible. Each shot started by rowing the boat quickly across the top of the pool with the aim of getting the boat as close to the bank as possible without getting caught in any rocks or overhanging vegetation. When the coble reached the other side of the pool, the boat headed downstream keeping as close as possible to the opposite bank. The men holding the net on the bank walked slowly downstream to keep up with the boat as it headed downstream. When the boat reached the lower part of the pool, it turned back upstream slightly and made for the bank it had set off from in order to close the net and trap the fish. This was the hardest part of the shot as the aim was to encircle the fish as quickly as possible and stop any escaping from the bottom end of the pool, however, the current often picked up speed as it left the pool and spilled down over the next brae, so the oarsmen had to pull as hard as they could to close the net as quickly as possible. When the boat reached the bank, the oarsmen grounded it on the scap. The stingman was first to jump out holding the painter – the rope attached to the prow of the boat. The stingman would then hold the boat as the netsman and oarsmen, holding their end of the net, jumped out. The stingman then beached the boat on the scap, and joined the rest of the crew hauling in the net. The two boats, holding either end of the net would them come together until standing almost side-by-side, hauling in the net carefully to ensure that the leads were kept down and the corks kept up to stop the fish either escaping under or over the net.
When the fish were landed they were dispatched by a short stick that each of the fishers carried called a ‘priest’. The fish would then be placed in the gunwales of the boat and the boat hauled up the bank back to the head of the pool. Hauling was a relatively simple process: a long tow rope (roughly 70 ft) was attached to the prow of the boat and all of the crew except the stingman got in line, faced upstream, put the tow rope over their shoulders, and started walking upstream hauling the coble behind them. While the crew hauled the coble, it was the job of the stingman to keep the boat off the edge of the bank and ensure it wasn’t damaged by rocks or caught in tree roots. This was done with the sting, a 15-20ft Scots pine trunk stripped of bark and sharpened to roughly the diameter of a broom handle at the sharp end. The stingman pushed the sting into a space under the rowlock and leaned on the other end to push the boat out from the bank.
When the crew arrived back at the bothy, the fish were unloaded and ‘boxed’ in fish boxes that were kept under lock and key in the netbox.
Each shot took about 20 minutes from beginning to end. And there was usually a break of about 40 minutes between each shot to allow the fish scared down the river by the previous shot to move back upriver into the pool. While the crew waited between shots they would mend any holed nets, maintain the coble or help keep things running smoothly by cutting wood for the stove or tidying the bothy. However, there was rarely enough work to fill the breaks between shots, so they were, within reason, free to do what they wanted to do.
On the Spey the crews mainly fished the Bridge and Lower Bridge Pools which were big and easy to fish and had been cleared of unwanted vegetation to make hauling easier. Around once a week the crew would put the coble on the tractor, drive up to near Fochabers and then fish all the pools down. The crew liked this as there was no hauling to be done, and it provided a bit of variety. Occasionally they also fished down from the bridge to the mouth, which they tended not to enjoy quite as much as they rarely caught much down there and sometimes had to haul the boat all the way back up.
At the end of each day, the fish were taken down to Tugnet where they were stored in the grass-roofed ice houses until the wholesalers and dealers came to transport them down south to Billingsgate and the other big fish markets of the south.
At its peak in the 19th and 20th centuries salmon netting directly employed thousands of people across Scotland, and sustained many small coastal communities. However, a large part of the inshore salmon fishery in Scotland was bought-out or closed in the space of about ten years around the turn of the Millennium, with the culture, tradition and skills of the salmon fishers disappearing almost overnight. There are still some working salmon fisheries, but those that do survive are under pressure and may not be around for much longer. This rapid disappearance of the Scottish inshore salmon netting industry was a direct result of the significant decline in the numbers of Atlantic salmon returning to Scotland’s rivers, and consequent declines in catches.
Since the late 1980s, which is when The Summer Crew is set, the Atlantic salmon population has declined dramatically. Scientists estimate that around 1,250,000 Atlantic salmon returned to Scottish rivers each year in the 1970s. In the late 1970s and 1980s there was a sudden decline in returning fish numbers with only an estimated 750,000 fish returning by the late 1980s. There was a small recovery in stocks after the turn of the century, but the overall trend has been downward ever since. In the past ten years that decline has accelerated and it is now estimated that as few as 350,000 fish return to Scottish rivers each year: just over 25% of the total that returned 40 years ago. Estimates of the global population of Atlantic salmon for the same approximate period suggest that the overall population dropped from 10 million to about 3.4 million. It’s worth noting, however, that though the Atlantic salmon population from the 1970s is now considered the benchmark, the Atlantic salmon population then was almost certainly much smaller than in previous generations. This is an example of what marine biologist and fisheries expert Daniel Pauly calls ‘shifting baseline syndrome’, which is our gradual acceptance of new norms for population size as we forget the abundance that came before.
The dramatic decline in the Atlantic salmon stock is attributed by scientists to two main causes: offshore fishing in the feeding grounds and climate change.
It is probable that offshore fishing had the earliest impact; at some point in the late 1960s commercial fisheries discovered the location of the salmon feeding grounds in the seas of the north and soon after factory ships with mile-long monofilament nets were catching more in a day than an onshore salmon netting crew could catch in a season. In the late 1990s these offshore fisheries off Greenland and the Faroe Islands were all but closed down, however, they had a great impact in the twenty or thirty years in which they were operational.
In more recent years, climate change is thought to have an increasing influence, with warming waters in the Arctic affecting the numbers and distribution of krill, the small shrimp that is one of the salmon’s most important food sources.
Salmon netting has, since at least the rise of sports fishing with rod and line in the Victorian era, been a contentious subject. Augustus Grimble (no, I didn’t make him up) says of the nets on the Spey in The Salmon Rivers of Scotland (1902),
‘Into the netting question I do not intend to enter.’
Before proceeding in the very next sentence to jump in feet first.
‘Spey, like all the rivers, has been gradually going back, both in the yield to nets and rods, although as a matter of fact it has not gone down so much as many rivers in which there are no nets. In my humble opinion it is not any given; nets that are reducing the salmon fisheries to extinction, but it is the vast and ever increasing number of fixed engines working round the whole of the Scotch coasts that are the cause of the mischief.’
This is, of course, just Grimble’s opinion and he is perhaps not the most impartial of witnesses as he was the guest of the Duke of Gordon who leased the netting at Fochabers to which Grimble refers. However, the specifics are less interesting than the fact that even a hundred years ago the decline in salmon stocks and the role of netting were a matter for debate.
I am not a fisheries scientist, however, there is little doubt that onshore salmon fishing has had an impact on stocks over the years, however, it has been estimated that onshore salmon netting only ever took a maximum of about 15% of the salmon that reached the river in any one year (which is, in turn, only a small percentage of the overall stock at sea). The onshore fisheries were a much more sustainable fishery than the offshore fisheries that sprung up and had such a significant impact in such a short time, but onshore salmon fisheries are much more visible than the offshore boats or climate change, and so have, in my opinion at least, had to carry an undue share of the blame for falling stocks.
Despite the relatively small impact of the inshore salmon fisheries there is little prospect of salmon netting being reinstated in the places in which it used to operate as long as stocks of Atlantic salmon remain so low, particularly as each rod-caught fish adds thousands of pounds to the local economy when a net-caught fish adds a fraction of that value.
It may, in the future, be possible to develop a sustainable Atlantic salmon population that allows offshore, onshore and sports fisheries to each take a fair share while maintaining overall stocks, however, that would require the type of concerted international agreement and action that seems in short supply in recent years, so it seems much more likely that we will, instead, have to implement further conservation measures as so many stocks of our marine wildlife are so seriously depleted by overfishing.
It’s all too easy to dismiss the decline of the Atlantic salmon population and the impact this has had on small fishing communities across Scotland as a relatively minor, local issue; something that doesn’t matter a huge amount in the grand scheme of things. Unsurprisingly perhaps, I don’t see it that way. I think the demise of the onshore salmon fisheries asks much bigger questions about how we manage our natural resources, protect our communities and preserve our national heritage and identity. It is, of course, vital that we conserve our wildlife, but how do we also protect our communities and their traditions?
And this isn’t just an issue facing our fishing communities: climate change and the efforts to protect against it are going to have widespread impacts for many people who live and work in our countryside. For example, what happens to hill farmers if, as seems likely, Government brings in new land use laws and regulations to offset carbon? What impact will these laws have on the big sporting estates? And what about rewilding? An attractive concept to city dwellers, but what does it mean for people who live and work in the country?
These are complex issues and I can’t pretend to have the answers, but what I do know is that the dramatic decline of the Atlantic salmon is a perfect example of the types of environmental challenge that will only proliferate and escalate in the 21st century if we continue to ignore our multiple impacts on the environment. Challenges that are, unfortunately, going to have the greatest impact on those people without access to wealth or political power; people like the salmon fishing communities that lived and worked round our coasts.
The Summer Crew is the highly-acclaimed new book from John Bennett.
About The Book | Sandy Geddes, skipper of the salmon boats on the River Spey, is worried. The new recruits for the Summer Crew are the worst he’s ever seen, and that’s a problem as catches are down and he needs all the help he can get. Follow Sandy as he tries to whip the crew into shape and keep them out of trouble with the various poachers, politicians, ravers, TV presenters, clergymen and aristocrats who cross their path.
The Summer Crew is a novel set in the late 1980s on the salmon netting at the mouth of the River Spey. Summer Crews, which were a mix of permanent employees, students and part time workers, were hired to fish the summer grilse run for the months of June, July and August.
The book follows the progress of the new recruits as they struggle to learn the ropes and integrate with the older, more experienced crew. For the most part it’s broad, gently comic look at Scottish rural life in the vein of Parahandy or Compton MacKenzie.